In 2013, Christine and Ronald Holt tragically lost their 6-year-old son, Brandon, when he was accidentally shot by his 4-year-old playmate. The young boy found a loaded .22 caliber rifle under his father’s bed and presumably got it out to play—the boys were playing “pretend shooting” and Brandon was shot in the head with the rifle.
Anthony Senatore, the 4-year-old’s father, was criminally charged with 6 counts of child endangerment for failing to secure the weapon (as well as other weapons around the house with ammunition nearby) that was used in Brandon’s death. Senatore never denied responsibility and ended up pleading guilty to 2 counts of child endangerment and was sentenced to 3 years in prison.
Afterwards, the Holts brought a wrongful death claim against the Senatores. Since the young boy’s father never denied his own responsibility in Brandon’s death, Judge Robert Brenner only had to determine how much the Senatores would have to pay the Holts. The award would be for the services and companionship Brandon would have provided to his parents throughout his life as well as the Holt’s pain and suffering and any unpaid medical and funeral expenses.
The court found Anthony Senatore 90% at fault for failing to secure his rifle. Photographs were produced as evidence at trial that showed a clean dark-wood floor under the bed, with no dust, which meant the area had recently been cleaned. Melissa Senatore, the boy’s mother, was found to be 10% at fault because, since the area had recently been cleaned, she should have known the weapon was under the bed.
The Judge ordered an award of $572,588.26 to the Holts and further ordered an investigation on the Senatore’s assets to determine whether they could afford to pay punitive damages.
Should Parents Be Liable For Their Children’s Actions?
It’s not exactly an easy answer because it should depend entirely on the circumstances of the case rather than automatic parental liability. At some point, children definitely need to be held accountable for their own actions but, in terms of criminal liability and a parent’s firearm, it’s not a new concept to hold parents responsible.
Twenty-seven states and D.C. have enacted laws regarding child access prevention laws. The strongest ones are specifically written for when a minor gains access to a negligently stored firearm, like in the case above, and those apply when the person “knows or reasonably should have known” that a child is likely to gain access to that firearm. Storing a loaded gun under a bed isn’t exactly a secure hiding spot.
Other states have broader implications, and the only restriction is directly giving a firearm to a minor. Currently, Massachusetts is the only state that specifically requires storing firearms with a locking device.
Civil liability is a different story because it’s much broader. Most states have laws on the books covering civil liability for any and all malicious or willful property damage done by their child. Most of these were originally enacted to cover automobile accidents and didn’t specifically apply in situations like the Senatores and Holts.
Now, parents can be held liable for their child’s civil wrongs (like wrongful death) just the same as employers can be responsible for the actions of their employees via vicarious liability laws. The idea is that parents are in a better position to be able to deal with the financial ramifications of the damage done by their children, but that doesn’t necessarily always seem fair.
Is There a Possible Alternative?
Not really. The good thing to keep in mind is that most state laws won’t hold a parent liable for criminal acts in which they had absolutely no control over, because most will handle the crime under the state’s juvenile laws. Senatore wasn’t convicted of murder on behalf of the crime his child committed, he was charged with child endangerment, which is entirely different and that’s taking on the liability for his own actions in and of itself.
So it really comes down to whether or not you agree with the idea that a parent can be vicariously liable civilly for their children. When it comes to firearms, parents should definitely be held responsible when they’ve negligently stored a firearm and giving a child access to it. For other crimes though, it seems like it could be a slippery slope to go down. A child driving their parent’s automobile or using their handgun is far easier to regulate because the parent has control over their possessions that a child may gain access to, but it’s a heck of a lot harder to regulate when a child goes out to purchase, and use, their own handgun.
Authored by Ashley Roncevic, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law